Sculpting a New Vineyard At Quinta do Tua

Old vines are wonderful for the intensity and richness their grapes bring to Graham’s ports, but sadly there comes a point when the yields are so low, and there are so many falhas (missing vines) that an old vineyard is just not economically viable any more.  Then it is more important to invest for the future, re-plant the vineyard and start again.  So it was at Quinta do Tua this year, when we made the decision to clear some old mixed vineyards.  Ironically, during last year’s harvest, we commented that these old vines were adjacent to some of our newest vines, a plantation of Souzão.

So, how exactly is a new vineyard created from an old one?  First, the old posts and wires are cleared out and the old vines as well.  Then the whole hillside – in this case 5 hectares – gets broken up and smoothed out.

Once the whole area is pretty well smoothed out, the next step is to establish the main roadways through the vineyard.  This is critical – not only are the roads used for transport, they are the key to our drainage strategy.  All the terraces will be gently inclined so that accumulated surface water will run off into the roadways and then follow the roads down the hill, thus minimising erosion damage to the terraces.  In some cases, we may cut a dedicated drainage ditch alongside the roadway, and even lay down pipes if appropriate.

The day I visited this plantation, the roadways had been established, and we were sculpting the patamares, the terraces atop earth banks which are used on all gradients greater than 30% incline.

Bulldozer slowly carves a new patamare out of the hillside

The process looks deceptively simple.  The bulldozer starts at the top of the vineyard and effectively snowploughs the first terrace and the angled talude (embankment) above it, allowing all excess rock and soil to cascade down the hill.  They then repeat this manoeuvre over and over, moving down the hill one terrace at a time.  The real art of it, however, is to always angle the terrace surface back towards the hill side, and generally sculpt the length of the terrace to angle ever so gently downwards towards the roadway end, so runoff is managed into the drainage system established earlier.

Breaking up the schist with a backhoe

We use an excavator (giratória) to dig a succession of ditches and move the soil from each new ditch to fill in the last one, turning over the top layer of soil.  This surriba breaks up the schist, but if we hit huge outcrops of solid rock which the diggers can’t manage, we might have recourse to compressors and dynamite.  It’s really the same process as double digging your vegetable patch, but on a slightly bigger scale!

Believe it or not, this will smooth out the terrace considerably

Finally our own tractorista, Alexandre, trundles along the new patamar with a little mini dozer pulling a scarifier to smooth out the tilth of the (still pretty rocky) soil.

Sometime between January and March of next year these 5 hectares will be planted in single varietal blocks of bench-grafted Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesa.  Although we will allow the vines to sprawl their first year, we do need to get the trellis system set up some time before July in order to comply with the regulations governing the subsidies for vineyard replanting.

At the height of harvest last September the new plantation of Souzão looked pretty bleak next to the other vineyards
Surrounded by five hectares of newly cleared hillside the Souzão plantation looks almost lush

7 thoughts on “Sculpting a New Vineyard At Quinta do Tua”

  1. Cynthia, this is probably a stupid question to those in the know but why is it that you cannot plant new vines in the holes left by dead old ones? Presumably new vines mature at different rates to old ones, but if the vineyard has a field blend of different varieties you must have that problem in any case!

  2. I know that some vineyards are too labour-intensive and need to be re-configured for that reason, and that as vines get old their yields can fall too low to offset the better grapes they yield, necessitating their replacement.

    But it is so much nicer when this is done in a gradual and peaceful manner.

    I’m probably being overly sentimental, but this type of wholesale operation is just too brutal for my liking – the good karma of an ancient vineyard, bulldozed to oblivion..

    – Is the viability of projects like this dependant on the availability of subsidies?

    1. Hi Tom. I also get sentimental about the old vineyards – so I think I can understand where you are coming from. Several things to bear in mind: First of all, any vineyard which has the old retaining walls is protected by UNESCO, so don’t worry, we will never destroy one of those!

      About the decision to replace falhas (missing vines) versus clear and re-plant totally, and bulldozing and resculpting versus just re-planting existing modern soil banked terraces: a lot of factors go into the decision making, including the quality and productivity of what’s left still growing, what percentage of vines need replacing, also the condition of the vineyard terraces. I was looking through my photos of that plot from harvest, and also over the winter, probably close to 200 photos, and a lot of terraces and the roadways were badly eroded from heavy rainfalls (remember winter of 2009-2010?). In January Alexander Mariz explained to me the drainage works they were planning (see this article https://malvedos.wordpress.com/2011/02/02/a-winters-day-in-the-douro/ ) so I imagine the decision to re-build this vineyard from the ground up was influenced by those needs as well.

      I am not familiar with the subsidy regime, and will have to ask a colleague about that, check back for more information in a (business) day or two. Thanks, Tom!

    2. Tom, just had a lesson in subsidies with Miles. There are lots of variables in the scheme, but reviewing the expenses of a number of projects in recent years, the subsidies covered between 40% to 60% of costs. I would not say these projects “depend” on subsidies, only that subsidies help mitigate the expense.

Comments are closed.